Debra A. Sandler

Worldwide president for McNeil Nutritionals L.L.C., a Johnson & Johnson company based in Fort Washington, whose major brands are Splenda, Viactive, Benecol and Lactaid.

Where she's from:

Sandler was raised in Trinidad and Tobago in a worldly, multilingual family and with ambitions toward international diplomacy.

She had her eyes on the Sorbonne - she speaks French, English and Spanish - but was detoured to Hofstra University because her mother wouldn't hear of her only child living on her own in Paris. "You can study what you want," she was told, "but you're going to live in your aunt's house in Hempstead, N.Y."

Sandler studied international business at Hofstra, got her MBA from New York University's Stern School, joined PepsiCo. Inc., and rose through the marketing ranks there, then left for two years as a stay-at-home mom. In 1999, J&J tapped her to lead the Splenda launch.

Scenes from a celebrated launch: Sandler says the idea that a health company of J&J's stature was crossing over into foods - her forte - intrigued her, and her instincts told her the moment was right for a low-calorie sweetener that didn't carry all the baggage of denial. "People were evolving away from 'diet' as the D-word," she says.

On the other hand, "There were a lot of executives who thought this was not a prime place to invest a lot of money," she acknowledges. "Before the launch, the low-calorie sweetener retail market was $220 to $250 million. There had not been a lot of innovation."

She saw opportunity in the alarming rise in obesity and diabetes, and she felt McNeil could differentiate its brand from competitors, in part because people could bake with it and in part because of J&J's health-care ties. "These kinds of things gave us reason to believe we could change the dynamic," she says.

Good instincts ... and accolades: Splenda was launched in the United States in September 2000, 16 months after Sandler was hired. By 2004, sales were $346 million. By last year the brand had cornered 60 percent of the dramatically expanded market for low-calorie sweeteners.

In 2004, Advertising Age named Sandler one of its "Power 50 Marketers." Ebony has called her one of the top 15 African-American female executives in the country.

Coals to Newcastle, another Sandler case study: Although she's not as well known for this campaign, one of Sandler's roles at Pepsi in the mid-1990s was to market Taco Bell ... in Latin America.

She crafted her strategy country by country. "In Mexico, there are a lot of tourists," she notes, so Taco Bell's marketing plan there was to locate in tourist cities and near key attractions.

If she were to market Philadelphia: She'd riff on the region's unmatched place in America history and its easy-access cultural life - especially compared with Manhattan's $1,000 price tag for a big night out. "We have the birth of the nation right here in the city - history at your fingertips."

Life on the off-ramp: "I'm actually very proud of the fact that I was a stay-at-home mom for almost two years then came back to corporate America," Sandler says. "I learned that there's a parallel universe out there - a lot more for me to offer."

As a mother she's strict, although she has indulged her 10-year-old, Kiah, with a cell phone. "I rationalized that if she had it on and she were lost, I would be able to find her."

- Becky Batcha,
Daily News staff writer

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